Listen to this review!
“He was trying to teach quantum mechanics without even a rudimentary understanding of Planck’s Constant.”—Temperance “Bones” Brennan on why she called her high school science teacher a “fool”
A while back I wrote a column about CSI, the series that spawned a seemingly endless list of crime procedurals on broadcast and cable television. One of the longer-lived examples of this genre is Bones, which first aired in 2005 and is still going strong in the current (seventh) season. Emily Deschanel plays Temperance “Bones” Brennan, a forensic anthropologist working with FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth (played by David Borantz of Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Each episode revolves around a single crime that Booth and Brennan work together to solve, along with a team in the crime lab. The dynamic between Brennan and Booth reminds me of Scully and Mulder from The X-Files: She is rational and scientific; he is open to explanations outside the realm of science and logic. While Scully tempered her rationality with ironic banter, Brennan is unable to recognize jokes when others make them, and her attempts at humor fall flat.
After seven years on the air, Bones has more than 100 episodes to pick from, and almost any science subject could probably be found in several episodes. I chose to examine the chemistry in an episode from season six: “The Twisted Bones in the Melted Truck.” The title gives you a good idea of the central mystery of this episode.
The episode begins with the rising sun igniting a fire and explosion in a pickup truck parked on the side of the road. The fire leaves a burnt-out shell of the truck, but a skeleton is found twisted and “melted” across the dashboard. Determining the cause of death is the first challenge, and the question of whether bones can actually melt is raised more than once. Brennan does correctly describe melting, saying, “Melting is the change of phase from solid to liquid,” and adding, “… an impossibility with bones.” Bones are not simple physical objects like a chunk of metal or even rock: They are composed of hundreds of organic compounds and a network of minerals (mostly hydroxylapatite, a form of calcium phosphate). A “melting point” for such a complex structure isn’t really possible to define. It would be a bit like trying to find the melting point of a car. Some parts will melt at one temperature, others at another temperature, and some might not melt at all.
Publicity photo for the Bones episode "The Twisted Bones in the Melted Truck."
One of the lab scientists notes, “I’ve never seen a fire hot enough to melt bones,” just before finding a bullet lodged in the skeleton—and my first warning flags went up. The writers appear to be proposing that a very hot fire could melt bone, which is one problem. They are also proposing that the very hot fire did not melt a lead bullet, which has a melting point of approximately 327°C. We hear the fire temperature estimated at about 500°C, which certainly would have melted the bullet. (More on that estimate in a moment.) Later, it is suggested, “The biogenic structure and composition of the bone mineral would have crystalized, and the bones would appear as if they had melted.” As far as I can tell, this is an example of something that sounds scientific, but actually lacks a scientific basis. I interpreted the sentence as implying the heat changed the bones’ structure into crystals, and that’s why they melted. Heat is more likely to break up crystals than form them, and crystals look like crystals, not like melted bones.
We soon learn the fire started in the load of magnesium scrap in the back of the pickup truck. Magnesium is the lightest metal that is abundant on Earth and safe to handle, so it is used to make light and strong parts of cars and motorcycles. The scientists on Bones propose an overnight rain shower wetted the magnesium scraps, making them so volatile that the rising sun ignited the load. They even go so far as to say that magnesium can only be lit if it is wet. While a chunk of magnesium is not easy to ignite, dry ribbon or powder can be lit with a torch. While it is true that throwing water on burning magnesium is a very bad idea, as the fire is hot enough to dissociate the water into hydrogen and oxygen, which is an explosive combination, the writers are playing fast and loose with the truth about magnesium. Wet magnesium will not burst into flames when the sun shines on it, though that does make for a nice opening shot in the episode.
When magnesium burns, it emits a brilliant white light, so it has long been used in flares and fireworks to produce bright white flashes. Magnesium powder was used in early photography as “flash powder,” and single-use flash bulbs often contained fine magnesium wire. Prolonged exposure to the light from burning magnesium can severely damage the retina, because the light includes significant ultraviolet radiation. These high-energy photons are emitted by burning magnesium because it is more than 3,000°C—not the 500°C mentioned in the episode. Although the danger of wet magnesium was overestimated, the temperature of the fire—and the hazards of looking at it—are significantly underestimated.
For a realistic treatment of magnesium, check out the Periodic Table of Videos entry.
I appreciate that Bones portrays science and scientific procedures in a positive light, and the fact that a woman, Temperance Brennan, is the smartest character is a positive step. However, I wish the writers would do some more research into the real properties of materials like magnesium when they are essential plot points.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Blick on Flicks »